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Train Like an Athlete To Boost Heart Health

September 01, 2021

By Lisa Cianci, Editorial Contributor

Professional athletes train for hours every day to keep their hearts in peak shape so they can perform at their best. But you don’t need fancy equipment or full-time trainers to improve your cardiovascular health.

Combining aerobics and strength exercises, just like the pros do, can go a long way toward getting your heart in tip-top shape, says Dr. Katherine Wojnowich, a board-certified sports medicine physician with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg Medical Group Sports Medicine.

Your Heart During Exercise

Your heart must pump blood at a rate sufficient to maintain a supply of oxygen and other nutrients to the muscles, brain and other organs for the body to function properly.

As you begin your workout, your heart will pump blood faster and stronger, which quickly transports oxygenated blood to your muscles. Practice makes perfect.

“Your heart becomes more efficient with regular exercise, helping oxygen flow throughout the body much faster, and increasing performance and endurance,” Dr. Wojnowich says.

Taking It to the VO2 Max

Athletes undergo aerobic conditioning — the use of continuous movement of muscles — to strengthen and train their heart and lungs to pump blood more efficiently. Aerobic exercises such as running and swimming allow more oxygen to quickly reach working muscles, the heart and other organs.

No matter the sport, athletes don’t just engage in cardio exercises. Strength training builds stronger muscles to support the joints and improves cardiac health.

Doctors and athletic trainers use several methods to measure cardiac performance in professional athletes. The VO₂ max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is a common measurement used to establish endurance before or during exercise. It indicates how much oxygen the athlete is absorbing and using.

Before the VO₂ max test, a person is outfitted with a face mask connected to a machine that analyzes their respiratory rate and volume along with the concentration of oxygen inhaled and carbon dioxide exhaled during exercise. A heart strap is worn to measure heart rate while the person exercises, typically on a treadmill or stationary bike.

VO₂ max is reached when oxygen consumption remains steady, despite an increase in exercise intensity. VO₂ max values can be used to establish a baseline fitness level before starting a training program and are typically tracked over time to monitor progress.

Athletes tend to have much higher VO₂ max scores than the average person. A study found that increasing your VO₂ max can improve the use of oxygen in the body, and maintain health and physical fitness as you age.

Tips for a Stronger Heart

Try these heart-healthy activities that athletes do to help increase your heart function:

High-intensity interval training (HIIT). This consists of bursts of intense aerobic exercise for 20 to 30 seconds, a short 10-second break and then 20 to 30 more seconds of the exercise again, over the course of several minutes.

Variety. Don’t engage in the same exercises over and over. Switch up aerobic activities over time (or even in a single workout) to prevent injury and over-training.

Strength and resistance training. Lifting weights isn’t just about building muscle. Strength training also can improve heart functionality and heart strength. Aim to strength train once or twice a week to help improve cardiovascular health.

Find a buddy. Working out with a friend or family member will help hold you accountable – and maybe bring out your competitive spirit.

Talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise program for advice on the best exercises for you as well as how often you should train to improve your cardiovascular health.

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